Recently, I came across a photo of a girl sitting on Oxford Street.
For the sake of charities in Africa, she had taken it upon herself to become ‘homeless’ for a duration of time, which would be extended so long as people continued to pay money to her just giving account.
In the photo, the girl was sat with her brown designer hipster shoes, clutching a can of Guinness and covering her legs with a bin bag. Beside her was her handbag, which presumably contained her mobile phone, should safety necessitate her making a call to her friends, parents or protectors.
At first glance, I thought that this David Brent/Alan Partridge-esque attempt at a charity stunt was crass and patronising, but because I’m generally an open minded sort I assumed she was doing it to give money to the homeless.
Upon clicking the link which led to her Just Giving page, I discovered that in fact what was happening was she and a group of students within her university were, together, trying to raise money to go on a trip to Peru and walk up the Inca trail. Further back and forths led to the discovery that the homeless stunt was actually paying money to a charity that she had worked with in Africa. This is a noble, selfless thing, right?
Wrong. Turns out that the girl was another part of a middle class phenomenon that leads rich children to believe that they are creating ‘positive effective change’ in the world by getting their parents, friends and relatives to open their considerable wallets to fund banterrific trips and holidays.
This is nothing new. I remember, in my years at university (not so long ago) that plenty of people would do things like Skydiving or Abseiling or Bungee Jumping in order to raise money for charity. In many cases, just like the Homeless girl, they would set up just giving pages in order to recoup the initial costs of the exciting adventure they were about to undertake. And if at any time their selflessness was questioned, there would be a cascade of double-barreled voices shouting about how ‘nice a person’ she was, and asking ‘what have I done for charity’.
Let me set the scene for you: I give money, time and things to many people on many levels. I do not feel as though my measurement of how charitable I am is scaleable against the most ostentatious stunt I have ever pulled to raise money or involve myself to improve the lives of others. I am sometimes a prickly person but I could never be accused of being outright selfish. I don’t do things because I feel as though there is a cause or obligation to make it my life’s mission to improve the world. I just feel as though there is an element of common decency in sharing something if you don’t need it and they do.
There are a few elements that inspire this hostility towards the modern charitable element. First of all, I am suspicious of the intentions of the people who do these things. They have blogs that profile their wonderful nature and exciting experiences. They get to do things like climb Everest, go to Machu Piccu, witness first hand the poverty of the third world. In many cases they work hard to achieve things. But if this is the reason you do something like this, why does it have to end up on the internet? Why are the blogs written in the first person? Will these trips abroad inevitably end up on a CV, or referred to in a competency question in an interview about a ‘time when you were challenged’ or something similar? Whichever way you paint it, this sort of activity makes a saint of the people who do it.
Secondly, I am hostile towards these things because of the historical implications of white middle class children going to places like Africa, India and other third world countries in the name of improving the lives of the people who live there. If you go to Africa with a charity to build a well, what skills are you bringing with you? Are you doing this because it is an experience that is going to better your life, or are you doing it because you have a knowledge and skill-set that the people living in these places desperately need?
For every stupid white 21 year old girl from the south of England going to get her hands dirty and dig a well, there is someone being displaced from doing the job themselves and learning how to do something. If that 21 year old white girl was an expert in well maintenance and distribution of water, then her being there is a genuine good. If she is there to get manual work done and hand over money, she is enabling the continuance of an attitude towards dependency that has dogged the third world since colonialism and the scramble for Africa. I will direct you to the website of VSO International here.
They say: to become a VSO volunteer, it’s vital you’re experienced in your professional field and able to train and advise colleagues in your area of expertise.
I am not a right wing, laissez faire sceptic of charities' involvement in the third world. I just believe that doing what we’ve been doing since the days we tricked the indigenous populations of these places that white people know better has only ever made them and the people within them worse. The very children that are going on these excursions are the same ones who, born a hundred years before, would be going on missions and colonial postings to spread the very same goodness and ‘positive effective change‘ that has condemned poor people to corruption, scarcity of resources and abject misery.
The historical implications of colonialism, racism and dependance do not just exist in Africa. They are alive and well in the children of Britain today, creating a brand new generation of do-gooders who think mutual benefit is a good enough reason to get involved.
But back to the girl who decided to become homeless. Her experience of traveling to different countries under the auspices of charitable enterprise has led to a sense of derring-do that made her think it would be acceptable to impersonate a homeless person. Her friends insist that she just wanted to ‘put herself in their shoes’. But she sat on the street, collecting money from passers by, essentially stealing it from the hands of the homeless people that rightly or wrongly depend on it to survive. To her and her friends, this was noble because that money would then be passed onto charities in Africa. If her charitable profile is raised alongside it, then why should that be a problem?
Instead of pretending to be homeless, she could’ve do a lot more good volunteering for an existing homeless charity (like this one).
Then she would get to talk to people that are homeless, get to talk to people that are helping the homeless and talk to people that have been involved in helping the homeless for a long time.
She could then write about what she has learnt from that experience and maybe write a few case studies about individual homeless people (with their permission) explaining why they became homeless, why they are stuck that way, and what the professionals try to do to resolve it.
She could then put a paper together for a political think tank explaining what she has discovered and what policy changes could be put in place to aid those that really want to help the homeless, but find themselves with limited support.
Or more pertinently, she could’ve took the money raised from the exercise or whatever it was going to cost to send her across to Peru and gave it to a charity that deals hands on with homeless people. By involving herself in the experience, she has done nothing but patronise the lowest people in society.
I do happen to know of a few people around my age who are doing genuine good with the poor abroad. I won't go on to name them because I (perhaps optimistically) believe they are doing these things for the right reasons, and are taking across with them skills and behaviours that are going to be genuinely useful to the communities they work within.
However, so many of these people are shameless self promoters, and cloaked in the name of charity they go globe trotting on the dollar of other, more gullible people.